[COLIN BETTLES, 03 June 2013]
WHEN backing global biotechnology crop research and development to feed the world’s poor, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates puts his money where his mouth is. Ignoring controversial headlines, Mr Gates is focused on delivering new plant varieties that can overcome challenging growing conditions and produce more nutritious foods.
And those foods may deliver genuine health and medical benefits for the world’s poorest countries, through research programs governed by strong regulatory regimes.
The Microsoft founder made his $67 billion fortune delivering a revolution in personal access to computer technology throughout the modern world.
He has now shifted gear and dedicated more than half of his personal fortune to philanthropy work which includes strengthening connections between improved agricultural production systems and genuine health and social outcomes.
Since its inception in 1994, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given $26 billion towards aid programs like those currently being run in 100 countries, including Australia.
That work has reportedly saved an estimated six million lives by finding smart solutions to overcome health threats and nutritional shortages, confronting some of the world’s poorest nations like Africa.
The Foundation’s financial contribution even outstrips aid dollars provided by some of the world’s most developed countries.
Last week, Mr Gates spoke about the practical mechanics of his philanthropy work at the National Press Club in Canberra before about 600 delegates.
He said Australia had an “excellent record” in global health and agricultural research and development (R&D), with many other discoveries in the pipeline for curing diseases like malaria and polio.
And there’s a new drought resistant sorghum variety on the way he said, with “magical” seeds that can survive and grow “even when there’s very little water”.
Mr Gates said health and agriculture partnerships between Australian groups and his Foundation were “very, very strong”.
But he said there were still opportunities to do more and deliver outcomes in this region and to the poorest countries worldwide and “show the strong leadership that people hope for and expect of Australia”.
Asked by Fairfax Agricultural Media why he supported genetically modified (GM) crops as a tool for overcoming Third World poverty and starvation, Mr Gates said that technology was only part of the Foundation’s agricultural research programs.
He referred to the high profile “counter revelation” on GM crops made by UK-based environmental activist Mark Lynas at the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this year.
Mr Lynas declared the GM debate was over and apologised for having spent several years “ripping up GM crops” and helping to start the anti-GM movement in the mid 1990s to demonise a technology that delivers health and environmental benefits.
Mr Gates said thinking about health and medicines, and the way vaccines and drugs are created using genetic techniques, was the way to shed greater light on the GM debate.
He said regulatory regimes, likes those in the US and Australia, ensured drugs and vaccines were reviewed ahead of any public release so any potential ill-effects were considered.
“Likewise, as we create new crops, we should have a regulator review process to make sure they’re beneficial,” he said.
“Now, in the case of GMOs there’ve been almost no cases of negative side effects – but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t apply the same sort of rich review we do for medicines before we put them out there.
“To deny ourselves that tool, particularly on behalf of people who starve to death, seems inappropriate.”
Mr Gates spoke about his Foundation’s work in Australia using biotechnology to develop bananas that contain “extra vitamins” and produce plants with drought resistant traits.
“Those crops will save lots and lots of lives,” he said.
“They will make a huge difference for poor world farmers.”
Mr Gates said his Foundation also funded increased regulatory capacity in Africa so those countries could make “rational decisions” on what GM crops to allow or disallow.
“Rich countries can afford to pay extra for food, two, three times as much, but poor countries should have their own regulatory excellence and ability to make decisions just as they do for medicines,” he said.
Mr Gates said the Foundation’s early work focused mostly on health programs, but they realised poor agricultural productivity only served to increase child health risks.
He said children needed both bulk nutrition and micronutrients to ensure their brains developed properly.
“Not only does that protect them from disease, it also is critical to when they do get a school experience, are they able to learn?” he said.
“You really have to couple agricultural and nutrition policies together with health and educational policies for countries to become self-sufficient.”
Of the world’s population currently estimated at seven billion, Mr Gates said one billion people were “chronically hungry”.
But in Southeast Asia the poverty rate has diminished against a climbing agricultural productivity trend.
“This is due to an agricultural productivity increase called the green revolution where staple crops like wheat, rice and maize have significantly increased productivity,” he said.
However, Mr Gates lamented that Africa’s poverty rate had remained unchanged as its agricultural productivity rate stayed low.
“What we need to do is we need to raise productivity still in a number of Asian countries, not China so much, but a number of agri-systems still need this and in Africa,” he said.
“It is possible with new seeds to double or triple these productivities.
“If this is done, we can take over 400 million (people) out of poverty.”
Photo credits: Alex Ellinghausen